FAA Targets Pilots for Sleep Apnea

 - November 25, 2013, 2:20 PM

The U.S. federal air surgeon, Dr. Fred Tilton, plans to demand specific sleep apnea testing for airmen who fit a particular profile. Untreated sleep apnea can be disqualifying to anyone with an FAA-issued medical certificate.

In his editorial in the Federal Air Surgeon’s Medical Bulletin published last week, Tilton stated that, “OSA [obstructive sleep apnea] is almost universal in obese individuals who have a body mass index (BMI) over 40 and a neck circumference of 17 inches or more, but up to 30 percent of individuals with a BMI less than 30 have OSA.”

The BMI calculator for the Center for Disease Control indicates a person 5 feet 10 inches tall with a BMI of 40 would weigh 280 pounds. Tilton said that once the policy becomes effective, all airmen medical examiners will be expected to calculate a BMI for everyone who applies for a medical certificate. Anyone found to have a BMI of 40 or more will be required to be evaluated by a board-certified sleep specialist. Specific details about the evaluation were not made clear.

Tilton said that once an initial examination of the affected airmen is complete, the FAA plans to gradually reduce the BMI index floor to continue the search for more people potentially suffering from OSA. Industry reaction has been vociferous about why the new BMI policy was not channeled through the usual process that invites comment from stakeholders. Dr. Tilton said the new policy will be “released shortly.”

The FAA Federal Air Surgeon’s plan to adopt a new policy to monitor overweight pilots at risk of obstructive sleep apnea has the aviation industry complaining of intrusive and unwanted attention. Is the FAA overstepping its mandate, which could cost some pilots their jobs, or does the air surgeon’s policy make safety sense? AIN will address this issue in the January 2014 issue and wants to hear what you think. Please contact senior editor Matt Thurber at mthurber@ainonline.com or (310) 306-4039. We will not reveal your name or any other identifying information.